When a friend comes back from vacation, what are the questions you ask? Almost without exception, there are three: “What did you see? What did you do? What did you eat?” Have you ever thought of using these questions to improve your fiction? When you begin plotting your next novel or short story, try keeping these three questions in mind to make your reader a part of the journey.
“What did you see?”
Don’t describe a scene. Put the reader in the middle of it. Let them see it for themselves. Involve every sense. Let’s rewrite Snoopy’s classic opening, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Instead of that simple beginning, we might say, “The drumming of the rain overrode any attempt at conversation. Distant flashes of lightning cut through the stygian blackness, as though an angry wizard had set off celestial fireworks. The rumble of thunder was like a thousand kettle drums, a fit accompaniment to the depression that Heathcliff felt.” See the difference? Read the first description and you see darkness and rain. Read the second and you hear thunder, see lightning flashes, feel the emotions of the character.
Of course, if you do this for every paragraph, you’ll end up with a million-word novel, so the trick is in knowing where to spend precious words setting a scene. Do it in the opening scene and then expend a similar effort with key scenes so that they will enfold your reader. Put him or her in the center of the stage, rather than in the audience, giving a three-hundred-sixty degree view of what’s taking place.
“What did you do?”
Every good story begins by showing the motivation of the protagonist. In order to make the reader a participant, not just an observer, it’s necessary to do more than define what the main characters want. The author should make those goals so desirable, so worthy, that the reader will identify with the hero or heroine and be swept along with them as the story unfolds, cheering their successes and mourning their failures.
Is the protagonist unjustly accused, battling to clear his good name from the slander generated by the antagonist. Make the reader bristle and boil at the accusations. Let him or her feel angry, become anxious to do something to make things right.
Does the heroine have a deadly disease? Is she searching for a miracle cure? When she meets the young doctor, make the reader pull for the research to be successful. Will she be cured? Let the reader rejoice. Does she succumb? Make the reader cry.
“What did you eat?”
You might easily misinterpret this admonition as advising you to include copious details about meals throughout the novel. Not so. But, as my wife has told me so often, a good meal involves all the senses. The background music in the restaurant, either soft and relaxing or loud and jarring, directly affects the dining experience. The sight of the food, the smells from the kitchen, the taste of that first bite—all these contribute to the total event.
In the same way, good fiction should trigger all the reader’s senses. After you have finished your first draft, go back through the manuscript and look for places where you can insert sensory descriptions: smell, touch, sight, sound, even tastes. Use this tool as another means of putting the reader in the midst of the scene. Make them feel the rain, hear the thunder, see the lightning.
Nourishing the reader
The “what did you eat?” question should also serve as a reminder that Christian writing ought to nourish the reader. Scriptures tell us, “Taste and see that the Lord is good…” (Psalm 34:8). Our writing should give the reader such a taste. Whether in the form of a novel, short story, poem, or a non-fiction work, our words should inspire the reader to examine and deepen his relationship with God. Don’t make them leave the table hungry.